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Ten Most Influential Theology/Biblical Books

Ten Most Influential Theology/Biblical Books

I have a substantial library. It is both smaller than I'd like and yet bigger than I have adequate time to consume. As a result of this library and guest to my house, I get asked often for book recommendations on theology. For me it is almost impossible to do justice to these recommendations. For me theology is a journey. A cyclical journey at that. A cyclical journey that moves across doctrines, passages of Scripture and times of contemplation. Books play an intimate part in this journey both because of their content, when they are written and most importantly when they are read.

No book recommendation can be offered universally. If it can then the book probably isn't very good (the Bible being a clear exception and maybe he Monster at the End of This Book). 

So with that in mind, these book recommendations are more like scars. Perhaps burn marks in the rug or dents in a car. These are the books and authors that have etched themselves into me and my thinking whether or not I still hold to the specific truths contained (again the most notable exception being The Monster at the End of this Book which I still adhere to strictly but did not make the list). 

10. Douglas Wilson - Standing on the Promises

This book opens up my list for a couple reasons. The breadth of change it affected in me was actually quite small. I was already Reformed. I was already postmillennial. And I had already had my children baptized. But within the range of area changed, the transformation was quite large. The way me and my household would look at covenant children would never be the same again. The impact of believe God's promises was refreshing. The just can truly live by faith. Even in regards to their children. Though I imagine other elements of my theology will shift and re-stabilize, this practical book will remain a bedrock for my family.

9. N.T. Wright - Surprised by Hope

This book came before my conversion to postmillennialism. It was fortuitous because it wasn't blatantly postmillennial in my eyes at the time. Instead, I was becoming aware of my issues with my practice before they were clear in my mind as my doctrine. This book started me down the path of clarifying many of these things and this book transformed my theology right before my eyes. Wright being non-American was good for me at the time. The British perspective on some of our theological battles is enlightening (even if at times wrong). But in Surprised by Hope I found the failures in American evangelicalism/fundamentalism rampant. Not, as some might assume, in a derogatory way. But by showing how the culture has shifted the purpose of the Scriptures to a "gospel-lite" instead of the genuine gospel of God's redeeming work in Jesus Christ for all of creation in time and space. "Gospel-lite" will forever match up poorly to what the Scriptures teach. Wright showed me that "heaven" is a glorious reality, one earth, that many Christians know little about no matter how desperately they want to get "there."

8. St. Anselm - Cur Deus Homo

Written around 1090 CE by Anselm of Canterbury, this book presents one of the most logically driven books I've ever read. I was in a staging of consuming works by older saints. I knew of Anselm through his impact on apologetics. I was aware of him as a smart theologian and a proficient writer. Anselm authored a few proofs for the existence of God but it was this proof for the "God-man" that helped me get some things straight. The title in English is literally "Why the God-man?" and the dialogue of the book drives a discussion of man's sinfulness, the debt we owe God and the only possible person who could pay that debt. This should all sound familiar to us. This is often how we portray the work of Christ on the cross. But what is important about this book is that it is the first time the "satisfaction theory" of the atonement was introduced into the church. Before this the church's view had been more incarnational. The recapitulation theory of atonement was the more advanced view. Anselm changed all that permanently. The Protestant Reformation and their view of Christ's work picked up where Anselm left off and carried it to where we are today.

7. John Milton - Paradise Lost

Okay. So this won't be winning any awards for Biblical accuracy. Not for theology either. This is pure poetry and fiction. Compared to the books on this list, this one was the first read. I was neither none of what I am now. I was a college student in a Brit Lit class drinking poetry with a straw. But ultimately, Milton's poetry had a big effect on my view of the Bible as a living document. Not in the neo-Orthodox sense that it is in a process of change but instead rather that it is a document of living things and people. It is pretty common to become satisfied with the cardboard characters that the Bible provides. We should in a sense be satisfied with the inspired descriptions. But when we do it without thinking of them as genuine living people it becomes a problem. We make them into less or more than they actually are. They cease to represent people and instead they represent more like ideas and thoughts. Hence along with thinking of them as cardboard cutouts we allegorize them. Instead of the "put yourself in the story" method (which I abhor even when I practice it) this book taught me that cautious speculation into the "gaps" of the Bible can be healthy for faith and renewed interest in the inspired texts and the people described in them.

6. Karl Barth - Deliverance to the Captives

Everyone has heard of Karl Barth. At least I think everyone has heard of Barth. If not maybe you should catch up on my previous book reviews and blog posts. Not many perhaps know he spent some of his latter years preaching to prisoners. Here is a man that still leaves theologian humbled and yet here is a man presenting the valuable truth of the gospel to the lowly. His complicated and dynamic view on election is boiled down and visible here. Dogma is ethics. Doctrine effects practice. The practical result of his theology is present everywhere. His love for Jesus Christ is evident and humbling. This book had a huge impact on my concept of preaching and how simple it can (and probably should) be.

5. Timothy Ware - The Orthodox Way

Eastern Orthodoxy is one of my vices. It is an echoing friend. Timothy Ware is perhaps the greatest English speaking voice creating that echo. About three years ago I was pulled into the book buying bug on EO. I purchased this and a couple more titles in preparation of a vacation to New Mexico. Alongside the quiet vacation and mystical elements of the state itself, I read Ware's book along with a couple others. It was a deep dive into EO and this book was the minor introduction that I almost finished on the plane. This is not a theological introduction per se. There isn't really anyway to communicate "systematic theology" for a Christian tradition that is equally focused on Orthopraxy (for an attempt read this). But The Orthodox Way is a devotional introduction that answers many theological questions and highlights some even better questions to ask.

4. St. Athanasius - De Incarnatione

On the Incarnation by Athanasius is one of the most important books of all time. It is valuable for its theology and insight into early church thinking and argumentation. Both church and culture have come a long way since Athanasius. In some regards this is a good thing. And in some other regards that "long way" has been in the wrong way. This short book brings a lot of things into perspective by returning to look at Jesus Christ through the eyes of a great theologian. But these aren't our eyes. And because of that it provides a twist, wrinkle or earthquake to just about any modern thought on the incarnation and our salvation.

3. John Calvin - Institutes of Christ Religion

So most everyone should have known this one was coming eventually. I did not start out my life as a Reformed man. My travel was a slow stretch of soteriology to ecclesiology. It is a travel that is continuing even as I type these words. But before all of that, this was the book that side-swiped me into accepting a full-orbed Calvinism. One cannot come away with "TULIP" when reading John Calvin. That's in part because Calvin didn't teach TULIP clearly. People still even argue whether or not he taught the "L" in the doctrines named after him. Instead, one comes away with a beauty of God expressed in sovereignty. The glory of God expressed in election. There is no theology in Calvin disassociated with devotional beauty. This beauty transforms the sacraments and the church and produces true Calvinism. 

2. Martin Luther - Large Catechism

This might be a shocker to many but I love Martin Luther. This little book expounded the Ten Commandments in such a way that it still reverberates in me. As I was crossing out of my baptistic roots I had a brief stop in Lutheran thought. I don't think I've shaken everything I learned there but this book contains just about everything that I've held onto. His teaching on the sacraments remain a thorn in my side despite my rejection of his law/grace dichotomy.

1. Paul - The Epistle to the Ephesians

Perhaps this is cheating. I wasn't going to just list "the Bible" because that would be a little silly. But over the course of ~80 weeks I made my way slowly through the book of Ephesians and this time was a catalyst of many changes. The book of Ephesians is unique in a number of ways and at the time it presented itself to me as a litmus test for my theology on the church. Needless to say I'd love to start to the book over again and correct early errors in my teaching. By the time I finished there wasn't an element of my theology that had not been radically changed. 

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